“Scotch whisky is the essence of Scotland- love, and pain, and always, the sea, bound together as poetry in a bottle.”
For the uninitiated, especially those disliking Scotch, Islay characteristics are the most frequently decried. Indeed, the peat-smoked barley juice conjures visions of intense smoke, tarry rope, seaweed, and salt, engendering a decidedly “love or hate” response. Smokehead Sherry Cask Blast turns that image on its head! This non-age-statement (NAS) 48% ABV barnburner is unashamedly Islay at heart, but it’s also so much more!
Smokehead works hard at creating an “alt” persona with its black bottles, edgy graphics, and “goth” personality. But beneath all of its glitz and packaging, it’s just damned fine Scotch whisky begging to be discovered. A brand of Ian MacLeod Distillers, one of Scotland’s few remaining family-owned liquor producers, distillings and bottling under a massive range of brands as well as providing bulk and private label production in addition to vodka, gin, rum, and even wine. Some of their more renowned labels include Glengoyne, Tamdhu, Rosebank, Sheep Dip, Macleod’s, Sheldaig, and Langs, to name just a few.
Under the Smokehead label, they produce six current expressions- Original Islay (43% ABV), “Blast” Sherry Cask (48% ABV), “Rebel” Rum Cask (46% ABV), “Terminado” Tequila Cask, “Twisted” Stout Cask (43% ABV), and “High Voltage” Barrel Strength Islay (58% ABV). They also make two travel-only (duty-free) variations- “Riot” Rum Cask (43% ABV) and “Extra Rare” Islay (40% ABV).
Sherry Cask Blast has a deep amber glow in the glass, typical of sherry-finished Scotch. The nose explodes with campfire smoke- if you love a good campfire, you’ll want to sniff this all day long! Backing notes include the expected sherry (without the “band-aid” of The Macallan and others) plus pine needles and eucalyptus, with hints of eclair, warm cocoa, vanilla bean, hazelnuts, and sugar.
The whisky is shockingly soft on the tongue- at 48% ABV, I expected it to burn. It has a fat and oily sense, and its flavors are round, soft, and very smooth. The smoke is much less prevalent in taste than the smell, allowing the flavors to integrate. It’s also exceptionally creamy- like egg custard. I can’t get over the soft and refined flavors. I would have guessed it was aged 15 years or more! Saltiness is noticeable, and white pepper leads to dry amontillado sherry notes and a savory, meaty flavor- like beef with kidney bean pie. Hints of baked cherry, prune juice, poultry seasoning, and baking cocoa lurk in the background.
The finish is long and luxurious, with the smoke reemerging as dominant, and a salty-sweet dichotomy morphs into hints of bay leaf, sesame oil, prunes, poppy seed, paste, and, finally, more dry sherry.
I’m in awe of this whisky! Even after sampling several times, I’m still impressed with this little smoke bomb’s refinement. The sherry is subtle and balances out perfectly with the smoke. Although I’ve read it was finished in Oloroso casks, the flavors are more reminiscent of fino- the common Oloroso/Pedro Ximenez rubber/band-aid character is absent. Also missing are the tarry rope, seaweed, and iodine flavor typical of many Islay whiskies. This is one of the rare Islays I would pair with food- almost any grilled or smoked meats.
I used to tout Lagavulin 16 and Laphroiag 10 as my favorite Islays. Well, move over, you two- the Smokehead is here to stay! If only it weren’t $105/bottle! Oh well- ya get’s wut ya pays for!